The state attorney general is investigating a Spanish-language letter warning some Orange County Latinos that they could be jailed or deported if they vote in the November election.
The letter, which purports to be from a Huntington Beach-based group, also warns that the state has developed a tracking system that will allow the names of Latino voters to be handed over to anti-immigrant groups.
"You are advised that if your residence in this country is illegal or you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time ...," the letter says.
The letterhead resembles that of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, a group that advocates tightening the border, among other things. But the group's founder, Barbara Coe, said she believed it was fraudulent. She said she did not know the person who signed the letter, "Sergio Ramirez," that she did not authorize it and was unaware of anyone in her group who did.
Nonetheless, it has riled Latino leaders and voters.
One person who received the letter is the wife of a Garden Grove City Council candidate. She said her husband, Benny Diaz, called friends after the letter arrived and found five others with Latino surnames who had received the note.
"It's a very malicious and degrading letter. It's to pull Latinos down and make them afraid," said Diaz, who is president of the Garden Grove chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
"Of course it's going to affect me and any other Latino candidate in Orange County," he added.
John Trasvina, interim president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said he had asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the letter.
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who called on California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson and state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to investigate, believes the letter is an effort to scare Latinos from voting in Orange County.
"You can't help but feel disgusted with the contents of this letter.... I'm not just going to sit silent," said Romero, who is up for reelection in November.
"Clearly, they are targeting certain people, mostly of Mexican origin. A message has to get out to folks not to be afraid."
Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin said the letter was "something we are investigating aggressively right now," he said.
The sender could be charged with a felony and receive up to three years in state prison, he said.
Trasvina wants an investigation of a "potential violation" of federal election law, which prohibits intimidation, threats or coercion.
He said he was aware of six people who received the letter, all of whom "appear to be naturalized citizen voters from Latin American countries." Voters' birthplaces are available from voter registration records.
The letter "is an outrage," Trasvina said. "Voter intimidation, particularly of minority groups, occurs regularly and we want the Department of Justice to look into it."
Coe said that in the last four days she had taken dozens of calls from irate Orange County Latinos who received the letters, which does not have the group's logo -- an outline of the state of California -- but has a variation of an eagle logo used on the group's website.
The letter "puts a shadow on our credibility, that we would target certain people who might be citizens of our country," Coe added.
She said her group was investigated by the FBI in 1996 and 1998 because members held signs near polls stating that only citizens can vote.
The letter's assertion that immigrants can't vote is untrue, because immigrants who become naturalized citizens can register to vote. Trasvina said that an undocumented immigrant who voted could be subject to deportation and jail.
The letter's assertion that the state has developed a computer system that will make it easy to track down immigrants and illegal residents, however, is false, he said.
Amin David, who leads the civic group Los Amigos of Orange County, said the Spanish used in the letter is very formal, perhaps suggesting it was written by a non-native speaker. The Spanish includes grammatical errors.
"If the letter is being sent to people with Latino surnames, it is really picking on Latinos who register to suggest they might have done something illegal," said David, who saw two copies of the letter.
Cesar Hurtado, a native of Peru who has lived in Garden Grove for 19 years and became a U.S. citizen last year, said he was insulted and annoyed when he got the letter Friday.
"How strange that letter was," Hurtado said. "It's saying I could be jailed. I would think if I'm registered to vote, it's because I am a citizen. It is assuming I'm a criminal."